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Cafeteria workers and housekeepers at Fountain Valley hospital picket for better pay and benefits

Maria Roman has worked at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and Medical Center for eight years, taking patients' meal orders and delivering them to their rooms.

Only recently has her wage cracked $11 per hour, and despite health challenges, she is uninsured, she said.

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She's part of a group of unionized workers asking for more from the food service and facilities management company that employs them, and they went on strike Thursday at Fountain Valley Regional.

"If we stick together, we'll get a fair contract for us, for our families, for our patients, for dignity and respect for everybody," Roman said at a midday rally intended to energize the picketing workers.

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About 100 cafeteria workers and housekeepers — who clean and disinfect common areas, surgical areas and patients' rooms — demonstrated on a sidewalk outside the hospital's southwest entrance off Euclid Street. Staff members from state Assembly and Senate offices, candidates for local, state and congressional offices and members of other unions joined the rally to offer encouragement.

The workers are employees of Sodexo, which Tenet Healthcare, the hospital's operator, contracts with at several medical centers in California. They have been represented by the National Union of Healthcare Workers since last spring but have not yet negotiated their first contract with Sodexo, said union President Sal Roselli.

Fountain Valley Regional released a statement this week saying the hospital would remain fully operational during the one-day strike, and that appeared to be the case Thursday.

"Our focus, as always, is on providing exceptional quality patient care," the statement said.

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The workers authorized the strike to protest what they describe as low wages, costly healthcare coverage and poor staffing levels.

Most of them make minimum wage — $10.50 per hour — or slightly more, according to the union, which said many workers collect and recycle cans to help make ends meet.

The union is seeking a contract that would boost hourly wages by about $3. It also is asking that Sodexo address "high staff turnover" and "chronic understaffing," which employees say put patient safety and infection control at risk.

Sodexo's public relations director, Enrico Dinges, said the company was disappointed by the strike.

"We have been negotiating in good faith with the National Union of Healthcare Workers … with a goal to reach a new collective bargaining agreement that's equitable for everyone, including our employees, and we still intend to achieve such an agreement," he wrote in an email.

Roselli said unionized food and housekeeping workers in Northern California make better wages and have better healthcare and retirement benefits than their Southern California colleagues. Those workers are employed directly by their hospitals, not by contractors, he said.

Roselli said the union wants its Southern California workers to also be employed directly, or for Tenet Healthcare to pay Sodexo more to help benefit workers.

Stem cell scientist and former UC Irvine professor Hans Kierstead — who has started and sold several medical research companies — told the crowd at Thursday's rally that he would not do clinical trials with Fountain Valley Regional until the labor issues are settled. Kierstead is a Democrat from Laguna Beach running for the congressional seat held by Rep. Dana Rohrbacher (R-Costa Mesa).

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Twitter: @Daily_PilotHD

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